A dispute over whether Sanders expressed doubts that a woman could be elected president during a private meeting with Warren in 2018, has drawn out the electability debate that has plagued the historically diverse primary.
The developments come as six of the 2020 candidates, including Warren and Sanders, prepare to take the debate stage in Iowa on Tuesday, less than a month out from the state’s caucuses.
Sanders strongly denied ever telling Warren a woman cannot win the White House after CNN first reported the alleged conversation. Warren later released a statement confirming the story, saying in a statement that Sanders “disagreed” with her when she said a woman could win the presidency.
The dispute over the conversation is putting renewed focus on the question of whether a woman can be elected president, four years after Hillary Clinton made history as the first female nominee of a major party and as a candidate who won the popular vote but failed to clinch the White House.
The debate comes as Democrats have fielded a record number of female candidates in the 2020 presidential race. Besides Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) are still running, and the party has become aligned in key issues such as reproductive rights and equal pay over the past decade.
“I tell people all the time that we just see this not even with the presidency but at local races, people are always saying oh, a woman can’t win that seat,” A’shanti Gholar, political director of Emerge America, said.
“At the end of the day, this country was founded by white men and our political system is still run by white men. So women continue to be outsiders when it comes to running for these offices,” she continued.
The doubts about whether a woman can clinch the White House linger even as Democrats have elected a record number of women to local and statewide offices.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, pointed to the 2018 midterms, in which a record-breaking 117 women were elected to the House, as a recent indicator of women’s ability to win in tough races.
Many of them flipped seats in districts across the country, allowing Democrats to retake the House majority, at a time when Republicans have seen the number of female lawmakers within their ranks dwindle.
“There’s been this assumption a woman lost last time … and therefore we can’t do that again,” Walsh told The Hill, adding the caveat that Clinton won the popular vote.
“One woman is not all women; one woman’s campaign is not all women’s campaigns,” Walsh added. “This is a different moment. These are different candidates, different experiences, different histories. I would hope that they would be judged not on their gender.”
Iowa, in particular, has seen a number of women shatter the statewide glass ceiling in recent years, with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds becoming the first woman elected to the office, and Democratic Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne becoming the first women elected to the House from the state in 2018.
“Iowa was one of the last states in the union that had never elected a woman to the governor’s office or to the U.S. Senate or to the U.S. House of Representatives,” Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of Iowa’s Polk County Democrats, told The Hill. “But in just the last two or three cycles that conventional wisdom is really out the door.”
“I think there’s a strong preference for more women running and winning our offices,” he added.
Over the past decade, Democrats have also become much more aligned on gender issues. Sanders himself has a long record of supporting issues impacting women, including the Equal Rights Amendment. He was a co-sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act, and called for 12 weeks of paid family leave during his 2016 presidential run.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) strongly defended Sanders and his record, saying, “I’ve heard him speak about how he’s convinced that Elizabeth Warren can beat Donald Trump and how formidable a candidate she would be.”
Yet Gholar noted that there is still a belief among many voters that only a man can go head-to-head against Trump due to his past remarks about female political opponents, including against Clinton in 2016 or when he described former presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as “nasty.”
“I think this really has to do more with the fact of because it is Donald Trump,” Gholar said. “People think that only a man can go up against him, only a man can beat him, only a man can be tough enough.”
The primary race is also fundamentally different than 2016, according to Christina Reynolds, the vice president of communications for EMILY’s List, a political action committee that seeks to elect pro-choice women.
There’s not “one woman’s lane,” she said, noting the ideological differences between the campaigns of the three remaining women in the primary.
Reynolds said the female candidates are facing a different challenge than Clinton faced four years ago, when she had to answer to questions on “likability” and “electability.”
Reynolds, who served as Clinton’s deputy communications director, noted there has been more of a public “uproar” when similar questions are raised about this year’s candidates. Yet in other ways, she said Democrats took the “wrong lessons” from the 2016 campaign.
According to Reynolds, Clinton’s “groundbreaking, history-making” run was now being used against some of the women running for president.
“And I think that’s too bad. And I would argue, inaccurate,” Reynolds added.
Reynolds predicts the “electability” question will fade as the primary process presses forward, especially if one or more female candidates perform well in the early states.
A number of strategists also believe that Democrats will likely nominate a female vice presidential candidate should a man prevail in the primary race, given the recent developments within the party.
“One hundred percent,” Bagniewski said. “There is this idea that we’re not going to elect a woman as president but Iowa is ground zero for those Obama-Trump voters, and those same voters are electing women in droves in Iowa.”